The Limitations of Perfection

by Katy on September 27, 2011 · 26 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!


I know it’s not popular to admit this, but I want to be perfect. I want the perfect house, perfect kids, perfect blog and to be the perfect nurse. (I am about as far from these goals as I am to being crowned 2011 Miss Teen USA.)

The harsh reality is that my house is always a bit of a mess, my kids can be Bickersons, my blog is rarely exactly as I want it, and there is no such thing as the perfect nurse.

I have a tendency to procrastinate starting big tasks and goals until I feel I can do them perfectly, which can easily mean never accomplishing anything.

A prime example of this was the garage sale I held this past Saturday. I wanted to wait until I had completely gone through the house, but I realized this goal was lofty to the point of becoming a barrier. So I simply set a date and did my best. I worked both Thursday and Friday, so there wasn’t going to be an micro-organization going on. I pushed the living room furniture against the walls and piled up the garage sale-worthy items.

It wasn’t pretty, and I only culled through about one-third of what I’d hoped to.

I did make signs Thursday evening, and placed craigslist ads on Friday. I unfortunately only priced about half of the items, but I was bushed and couldn’t get through everything. I figured I would price the merchandise after setting everything out. A steady three hour mob of enthusiastic customers interfered with this plan, and I could tell that some people were frustrated by the seemingly random pricing.

But here’s the thing — if I had waited to hold a garage sale until I could do everything perfectly it would never have happened. Just like if I had waited to start this blog until it could be perfectly written the result would be the same. No blog.

But you know what? No one but me knew that I hadn’t tackled the entire closet full of board games, or that I had wanted to set up a specific cashier’s table.

I still made $400, every penny of which is headed into my savings account. I call this a success. (Not to mention my house is happier with the clutter diminishment!)

The barrier of perfection may be obvious to some, but I am only recently coming to terms with it. My tendency is to not entertain unless I can get the get the house into a Martha Stewart worthy state, which essentially means never having anyone over. I consciously fight this instinct in order to enjoy the company of my friends and family.

I wonder if others put off the things they want to do because they’re waiting until it can be done perfectly? Please tell me I’m not the only one!

Do you hold yourself to a level of perfection that stifles your accomplishments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life September 27, 2011 at 8:46 am

The scariest thing for me is embarking on a project without knowing all the steps it will take to finish it. I am a planner and want to have all the steps planned out before I begin. And sometimes that’s not possible! There’s a website I’ve wanted to start for forever and I didn’t know how to go about setting it up. I went to a conference last month where I got a kick in the pants to just start it, so I bought the domain name and I’m slowly teaching myself Wordpress, then figuring out how to hire a site designer on my minimal budget. But the fact that I bought the domain name is giving me the push to just keep working on it!


Elaine September 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

I tend to be the same way – if I can’t do something perfectly, I often don’t do it at all.

I recently read something about not letting “perfect” get in the way “doing”. I like it.

Also, Good Housekeeping now has a monthly feature called “Good Enough Housekeeping”. Hey, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!


Jenny September 28, 2011 at 8:12 am

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Said by Voltaire and a regular mantra in my house.


Amy September 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

I used to hold myself to ridiculous standards. If I got an A- instead of an A+ in college, I’d force myself to study more. If I didn’t get my entire week’s to do list done by Wednesday, I’d feel like a failure. If I didn’t spend every waking second doing something for my kids and husband and friends, I’d get upset.

Through a recent devastating loss though, I’ve realized that life is far too precious and short to be that kind of stressed ALL the time. I’m never going to reach perfection so I might as well just be the best imperfect me I can be and call it good.


Jen September 27, 2011 at 8:52 am

Ha! I just posted something similar on my own blog today. Maybe it’s in the air!


Elspeth @ paperarmour September 27, 2011 at 8:53 am

A good friend of mine often says “I’m a recovering perfectionist,” which has always inspired me. I’m the same way as you, and it has taken a lot of work and thought to realize that being such a perfectionist not only holds me back, but makes me unreasonably hard on myself.

I’m really glad that you’re on the same path, of learning how to let go a little bit and how to be easier on yourself. 🙂


Jackie September 27, 2011 at 10:41 am

YES! I am a pretty tidy person, but I do not actually CLEAN my house nearly as often as I should. I am a perfectionist, so cleaning the house means spending an entire day because every baseboard must be wiped and every tile scrubbed, etc. It’s overwhelming and exhausting, so I just don’t do it. And then I don’t have friends over as often as I would like because my house is not in perfect shape. I don’t pick up new hobbies I would like to start because I know I will not be perfect at them. Etc. Etc. The word you used…stifling…is perfect for this!


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi September 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm

YES, YES, and YES!!! I’m a perfectionist to boot! I’d have panic attacks if people threatened to head over and my house was not immaculate. I’m trying to ward of the perfectionism bug, but it’s hard. As soon as I come to terms with one scenario, another one is right there waiting to be bitten. It’s a long, hard road to being perfectly imperfect, but I’m trying 🙂


Lynn September 27, 2011 at 12:34 pm

You should check out sink reflections – the fly lady book. Her whole concept is coping with and defeating perfectionism. It really has helped me try and defeat that old enemy –perfectionism.


min hus September 27, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Same here. I’m SUCH a perfectionist and a Class A Virgo. I had a boss who used to say “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” I repeat this to myself, often. I have to set deadlines, even for personal projects, because if I don’t I’ll keep tweaking them forever.


Molly September 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Oh Ladies, come to my house! I am not a perfectionist. It does pass through my brain on an occasion that it might be one goal to aspire to but it doesn’t stay long. I think there’s the good and the bad. If you let it stop you from doing things you love to do- get past it! But if we didn’t have perfectionist we would have a bunch of lazy-butts around here (just speaking for myself)!
Here’s to perfection!


Ellie September 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I DO IT TOO!!! It’s debilitating!!!


AlexSandra September 27, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I too naturally feel this way and am always making a conscious effort to DO and not inspect. As I began reading these comments I started wondering how many of us are Virgos.


Ann September 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

I know exactly what you mean. I have always been a perfectionist, but I like the post above that mentions “recovering” because it is something I am working on daily 🙂 For example, I am a piano player and teacher and I tell my students that the old adage of “practice makes perfect” is a lie. We don’t use that phrase in my music room. I teach them that “practice makes progress” and we will never be perfect but when we do our best we can be proud of our accomplishments, whatever they are, even if they seem small from one week to the next. It is the “doing” that counts. And you’re right, when we wait until things are perfect, we often don’t actually “do” anything!


amber September 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I am also learning to not wait until I have enough time to do something perfectly. Like, tonight the bathroom needed to be cleaned (it was bad). I wanted to wait until the kids were asleep and knock it out. But, I knew by the time the kids were asleep I would be too tired to do it. So, I told them they were going to help me with it. We gave it a quick cleaning not the perfect one I wanted to give it. But, that is ok. There might be little finger prints on the mirror where the girls helped, which is better then nothing!


Practical Parsimony September 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I am a virgo–9-11–but a practical one. This is true of my sewing, especially. I had to rip out anything that was slightly wrong. I learned that only perfection was acceptable to my mother. This was okay then and now since I have won awards and made a ton of money from sewing.

However, I plan in my head and start before I get behind. I never had a perfectly-kept house. But, if I cleaned the sink, it was with cloth, cleanser, round toothpick, toothbrush and lots of elbow grease. I did this once each week, at least. I got down on my hands and knees to scrub baseboards once a month. But, in between times a swipe with the vacuum or dust mop sufficed. There were always friendly looking, little dirty spots that had not lately been given the perfection attention. Clutter was unknown in our house.

Even more lately, I entertained lots of people once a month. That keeps a person up to date on cleaning. And, no, it was not perfectly clean in here. But, there was just me and 4000 sq ft, so clutter could be conveniently dumped in another room.

I cannot clean like that now, and it bothers me. If I got on my knees, okay, I can get on my knees but they hurt. I guarantee I could not get up without a dresser, cabinet, counter, commode or chair. So, I have had to let go.

Pricing? I price things as I put them in a box for a sale. This can happen over months, so that the final push is not all about pricing. I kept the masking tape and pen IN the box where I deposited things. You can lift up the end of the tape and put the pen there where it won’t get lost in the box.

Let me tell you a story about not cleaning. My friend, a perfectionist, brilliant, ex Vietnam, AF Wild Weasel did not clean because he had to have a “flow chart” in order to start. Read this: It is about cleaning and hoarding.
If you know a hoarder or a non-cleaner, pass this post on, just a link. Please do not copy the text.


LIB September 27, 2011 at 7:27 pm

PERFECT is the enemy of GOOD.


Elaine September 28, 2011 at 6:02 am

That’s it! (My memory isn’t what it used to be.)

I also love: Some times, good enough IS good enough.

There’s an organizing site I hang out at, and they have saying JDI (Just Do It). That one motivates me most of the time.


Kelli September 27, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Count me in as a perfectionist Virgo….right now, I struggle with my children’s baby books and photo albums…I know I can’t make the perfect scrapbooks so therefore I don’t start. I do have pictures in photos boxes, according to years. But it took me years to even get up the courage to do that…..My husband is more spur of the moment about inviting people over, but I just can’t do it without plenty of notice so my house can be spotless, kids can be charming and food can be perfect. Needless to say, we don’t entertain often…….In high school and college I had a strange “trifecta” that I thought I had to maintain: straight A’s, skinny(I was 113 lbs. at 5 ft. 8 in when I graduated), and have a boyfriend…..I have a 15 year old daughter and I tell her my story so she won’t box herself in a corner like I did…..Perfectionism has its place, but it can be destructive too! Hubby tells me I am my worst critic and he’s right!!


Leanne September 27, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I also have this problem, and right now it’s winning. There are so many things I need to do, but I can’t see getting any of them right. It’s like they depend on each other and I can’t find the beginning. I’m headed to a dark place so if anyone has some good ideas, I could sure use them.


Jenny September 28, 2011 at 8:15 am

I’m a Scorpio, not a Virgo, so you do have comnay from some others! And I learned the perfectionism habit at the hand of my mother, who is a Libra.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land September 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm

It used to stress me out so much to have people over, but then I realized, when I go to someone’s house and it’s perfect, it just makes me feel inadequate. Now I just say to myself that my less-than-perfect house helps other people feel better about themselves, and that’s what a good friend does.


AJ October 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

I like your perspective, Laura!


Valynne September 28, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Katy, this reminds me of our quick conversation last Thursday at the bloggers group. I can really do a number on myself when it comes to that all or nothing mentality. It has prevented me from sending out pages long letters to dear friends and family, taking on exciting projects, saying yes to dates…the list goes on and on. I am getting better. I recently asked my writer friends which books I should read on writing and one of them told me to JUST WRITE already and that really hit home…it’s like, just blog already, or just send the letter already, or just go running (ok, jog-walking) already, or just commit to that exciting project already! Thank you for this gentle reminder on the limitations of perfection,
PS I love Laura’s comment about her less than perfect house : )


Heather Anne September 29, 2011 at 12:03 pm

You are not alone. I do the exact same thing. 🙂 And yes…”just do it” seems to be the only cure. Perfectionism is a family disease for me. One I have tried to rebel against most of my life. I’m not perfect at that either 🙂


AJ October 1, 2011 at 2:48 am

Too true! I spent a long time not just wanting to be perfect, but somehow thinking I COULD be, if I just weren’t so imperfect in X, Y or Z way. Not logical, not realistic, and not a recipe for happiness.

I’ve been focusing on the Martha Stewart thing lately, once I realized how much wanting a perfect house to show guests was cutting me off from spending time with people I care about. I’ve had to make “have people over more” a goal, and let the perfectionist desire to meet my goals battle with the perfectionist desire to have a perfect house. So far it’s working, a friend is coming over for dinner tonight and looking at my schedule it’s clear “clean enough” is going to have to do.


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